By Melanie Gosling
About 30 000 elephants are killed in Africa every year, and opening the legal ivory trade is likely to increase poaching and lead to local extinctions of these big mammals, according to international NGO Environmental Investigation Agency.
Executive director Mary Rice, who was in Cape Town after attending the African Elephant Summit in Gaborone earlier this month, said unless countries backed off the idea of selling stockpiles of ivory, “there is not a bright future for elephants”.
“We are in a major crisis of elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade. The year exceeded all others with more than 40 tons of ivory seized. South Africa is not being impacted by ivory poaching now, but that could change. Step outside South Africa and the situation is critical. We’re already seeing incursions into Botswana and Namibia, and both are countries perceived to be well resourced and policed,” Rice said.
There are differing views on whether selling the stockpiles of ivory, built up over years from natural elephant deaths, will flood the market and reduce demand, there-by protecting elephants from poachers’ guns, or whether doing so will stimulate the ivory market and increase poaching.
International trade in ivory is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
However, under pressure from southern African states with stockpiles of ivory, Cites authorised two controlled auctions of ivory, in 1999 and 2008. South Africa’s official stance is that there is no link between the legal ivory trade and poaching.
Environment Minister Edna Molewa said earlier this year: “As far as South Africa is concerned there is no linkage between that once-off sale (in 2008) and poaching. While we know what is happening in other range states – as seen in the media where elephants are, for example, being poached to fund rebel forces in internal conflicts – we would like to emphasise that no elephant have been poached in South Africa since the once-off sale. We are only aware of two elephants that have died in the past decade, after being caught in snares set for antelopes.”
South Africa is to host the Cites meeting in 2016.
Rice believes legalising one-off sales of stockpiles stimulates the market and provides a cover for poached ivory. “In the light of the current poaching crisis, the most significant urgent measure that could be adopted is to make a complete ban on all ivory trade, domestic and international. The message we put out is: ‘Don’t sell ivory of any kind. It is not the answer’.
“Instead, states with elephant populations need to tackle corruption, which fuels the illegal trade, and need to approach the illegal trade from an intelligence base. It is a narrow, blinkered view that selling ivory will solve poaching. We urge South Africa to look at alternatives to trade. If South Africans go down this route… they will find themselves living to regret it,” Rice said. “Selling the ivory stockpile… could stimulate even more demand for ivory.”